In 1968, I was attending kindergarten at the Presbyterian church in my small hometown in South Carolina. The next school year, my first-grade class was the first integrated grade in our school district. I knew there were differences with black people and white people, but other than going to different churches at the time, I do not remember any other real differences.
My preschool best friend and I used to walk together up Main Street to the county library branch for Tuesday morning story hour. I later learned that my father was watching every step from the front door of his furniture store, and he had telephoned the owners of the clothing store, shoe store, dime store, the other furniture store and the manager of the diner, all of whom were also tracking our progress and safe arrival at the library.
As instructed, we waited for the WALK light at the street crosswalks, and we held hands for safety while crossing the street, just as we had been taught. Many years later, I also learned that someone on the street had called my father to report that his son had been walking up Main Street holding a little black girl's hand.
This is my first memory of true racism, and I didn't get it. We were playmates at age 3, and we've been best friends ever since. She was my high school class valedictorian (I was 9th of 153 graduates, and lucky to be 9th), and I played the organ for her wedding to Alan the veterinarian. She is truly the most naturally intelligent person I have ever known. Indeed, I've never gotten it.
Through the years, I have learned so much about the Civil Rights Movement and about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. At some point in high school, I discovered the writings of the Lebanese prophet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote much about peace. I learned about Gandhi's peace movement and fell in love with the excellent film about his life. And I had a big "ah-ha" moment when I learned that King patterned his movement after Gandhi's.
Fast-forward to the defense of my master's degree thesis in May 1987, in an office with five beloved but intimidating professors, yours truly in a sport coat and bow tie, and five thesis volumes freshly spiral-bound at Kinko's. Everything was going well until this question: "What happened on April 4, 1968?" Complete blank. Long, uncomfortable silence that never let up. I was on the hook, not off.
My thesis was a study of each new hymn text and tune in The Hymnal 1982, our present Episcopal hymnal. Most every entry was one or the other, new text or new tune. Only a handful of hymns were both new text and tune. One new text, set to the traditional tune TRURO ("Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates"), was Brian Wren's contemporary text, "Christ is alive, let Christians sing."
I knew all about this text, about how English congregationalist pastor and hymnist Brian Wren had written the hymn after the assassination of Dr. King the week before Easter in 1968, and how Wren's hymn was first sung on Easter Day in his congregational parish the following week. I knew how Wren and theologians around the globe had been affected by King's assassination. And I knew the depths of Wren's text: "Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives where even hope has died."
But I didn't know the date King was killed. The date!
At some point following the long, uncomfortable silence, the professors signed the books, I marched and graduated, and the rest is history. We have used this hymn numerous times in worship but not on a more significant or solemn occasion than this Sunday, when we will commemorate Dr. King's life and use the Episcopal proper readings for his feast day. In the 10:30 a.m. liturgy, we will sing a number of appropriate anthems and hymns, ending the service with this glorious text.
May we all strive to life up to Brian Wren's prayer and proclamation for our world.
Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.
The cross stands empty to the sky.
Let streets and homes with praises ring.
Love, drowned in death, shall never die.
Christ is alive! No longer bound
to distant years in Palestine,
but saving, healing, here and now,
and touching every place and time.
In ever insult, rift and war,
where color, scorn, or wealth divide,
Christ suffers still, yet loves the more,
and lives, where even hope has died.
Women and men, in age and youth,
can feel the Spirit, hear the call,
and find the way, the life, the truth,
revealed in Jesus, freed for all.
Christ is alive, and comes to bring
good news to this and every age,
till earth and sky and ocean ring
with joy, with justice, love and praise.
Brian Wren (1968)
Copyright 1975 Hope Publishing Co.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Photo by Vernon Matthews/The Commercial Appeal
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to an overflow crowd at Mason Temple March 18, 1968. Crowd estimates ranged from 9,000-13,000. King called for a general work stoppage by black Memphians if the city did not agree to a union dues checkoff for its sanitation workers. "Along with wages and other securities, you're struggling for the right to organize. This is the way to gain power. Don't go back to work until all your demands are met," King told the crowd. He pledged to return to Memphis on March 22 to lead a march that was postponed due to near-record snowfall. The protest was rescheduled for March 28. The march ended in disorder with looting and vandalism along Beale and Main streets. Police moved in with tear gas and nightsticks. By day's end, one person had been killed and more than 60 injured. King agonized over what happened and vowed to return to lead a peaceful mass march. On Wednesday, April 3, he returned to Memphis. That night, more than 2,000 listened as he gave his famous "Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple.